The area of land now known as Acadia National Park has a long and complicated history, both geologic and cultural.
The origin of the rocks that currently make up Acadia, the surrounding islands, and coastal region is buried deeply within the history of plate tectonics and the powerful volcanic forces that continuously shape our planet.
Beginning 600 million years ago, multiple episodes of volcanic and tectonic activity both created and relocated the bedrock that can be seen throughout the island. Recent geologic studies reveal that coastal Maine and western Europe share many of the same rock types, age, and fossil record, suggesting that this section on the Maine coast did not originate with the North American Plate, but was in fact part of a small continental land mass (called Avalonia) that became attached to North America during a time of continental collision between 350 and 400 million years ago.
Following the ancient formation stage, other forces emerged to continue the transformation of the Maine coast. Beginning nearly 2 million years ago, and ending about 10,000 years ago, a series of glacial advances and retreats played a key role in transforming the island’s landscape and shaping the landforms we see today. Deep, rounded, U-shaped valleys, and piles of broken rock and boulders (called erratics) deposited throughout the hills are evidence of the effect of these massive one to two mile thick sheets of ice.
Currently, erosion continues the shaping process. The effect of waves on coastal rock erodes dikes and other weaker rocks to form chasms such as Thunder Hole, cutting cliffs and sea stacks, and leaving the rubble to transform into cobblestone beaches. Higher up the hillsides, water seeps into rock fractures and freezes, causing blocks of rock to break away to fall or slide down the mountainsides, forming piles of rubble called talus slopes.
Though natural forces have a dramatic effect on how we experience the physical environment of Acadia, perhaps equally important, but more subtle, are the various cultural forces that have been at work in this area since the retreat of the glaciers. When one looks at Acadia, it is easy just to see the end result: a spectacular natural area preserved for future generations. However, as with all land in North America, the use and ownership of Mt. Desert Island passed through many hands before its present designation as a national park.
Native American peoples have inhabited the land we now call Maine for 12,000 years. Prior to European colonization of North America, the Wabanaki (“People of the Dawnland”) Confederation (a loose union of five distinct tribes: the Abenaki, Maliseet, Mi'kmaq, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot) controlled an area encompassing what is now Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and a portion of Quebec south of the St. Lawrence River.
Caught between the French and English as they jockeyed for control of the area, the Wabanaki Confederacy participated in six major wars before the British defeated the French in North America, during which, in addition to the radical decimation of their population due to warfare, they also experienced famines and devastating disease epidemics.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, through a series of one-sided treaties and forcible relocations, the Wabanaki were relegated to smaller and smaller areas until only five separate reservations remained. Current Wabanaki land holdings now amount to less than 5% of their ancestral homeland.
European involvement, and subsequent influence, in the area began in 1524, with the arrival of the Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, who is credited with christening the area with the name L'Acadie or Acadia. Eighty years later, in 1604, Samuel Champlain wrote in his journal, "The mountain summits are all bare and rocky..... I name it Isles des Monts Déserts."
Ownership of Mt. Desert Island passed from French control to British in 1759, and then to the newly created United States as a result of the Revolutionary War. Under US control, Mt. Desert began to be parceled out into smaller and smaller land holdings. Various industries defined the use of the area over the next 100 years, until by the end of the 1800’s the natural beauty of the area was immortalized by painters from the Hudson River School, eventually attracting prominent people of the times, such as the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Astors, who transformed the landscape of Mount Desert Island with elegant estates. Several of these wealthy landowners, experienced a growing sense of alarm at the increasing development of the Bar Harbor area banded together to preserve land for the perpetual use of the public, eventually setting aside 6,000 acres, which they transferred to the federal government in 1913. Mt. Desert Isle was originally designated as Sieur de Monts National Monument by Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and after several years of additional property acquisitions and donations, was designated as Lafayette National Park. The name was changed to Acadia National Park in 1929.
One of the most striking elements of the park are the 57 miles of carriage roads commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the early 1900’s. Rockefeller also engaged the services of Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959), one of America’s most celebrated landscape architects, to design the planting plans for the carriage roads. Farrand was renowned at the time for the private estate gardens she designed for East Coast society as well as her work as a landscape consultant at some of the country’s most prestigious private universities and colleges. Farrand was one of the founding eleven members, and the only woman, of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
Though the fifth smallest national park at 47,000 acres, Acadia hosts nearly 3.5 million visitors annually.